Standing Up for Your Art

When I sold my artwork at art festivals, I got immediate feedback. If I hadn’t designed a piece in a way that was popular, if it didn’t balance, no one bought it. (Those were days that I designed and sold totemic jewelry made from artifacts that had not originally been jewelry–veil weights, for example.) So I kept my eye on trends and what fit. And I balanced that with what I wanted to make, what made meaning for me, what stirred my creativity.

Found art: jellybead (or gum) spot on sidewalk. Been there for a while, couldn't budge it with my shoe. Still, art.

Eventually, I made the pieces that were popular over and over again. One of the problems of doing one-of-a-kind pieces is that you have to make very similar pieces in big numbers. I didn’t mind. It was the bread-and-butter work, I also got to make new pieces that were amazingly challenging and interesting to me.

When I quit doing shows, I wanted to spend some time exploring how my interests had evolved and what direction to move to follow my meaning. I returned to paper art. Over the next three years I’ve done a lot of exploring, experimenting, and discovering. And for me,  meaning lies in the middle of the intersection of writing and illustration. There is a lot of room at that space–the definition of “book,” “writing,” and “illustration,” all of which I loosely group into the phrase “raw art.” There are others working in that space, and they create interesting questions and meaning-making exercises.

There are also those who don’t understand or value this work. I understand that. After all, my previous work was functional, and what I do not is not. Some others are not interested in works on paper, and that’s what I do care about.

Something interesting has happened as I continue to explore the meaning-making portion of my art. I began to care more about the work, the meaning, the exploration than I did answering the question, “What can I teach?” “What product will they take home?” “What’s the interesting thing for the public?” Instead, I wrote a book encouraging people to sink into their creativity, to explore the dark edges and the bright outgrowths.

I’ve been working on ideas for a long time, but now I put the ideas down, knowing that I was drawing borders, knowing that I would have to leave out things as well. But I continued to collect ideas, try them out, see how they worked.

Then came the book proposal, and now I am waiting for the answer from the publisher. My friends have a huge question for me–What if the publisher doesn’t take the book? What will you do then? It’s a question that makes me smile. I’ll write the book, of course. I can’t not write the book. Of course I would like to have it published, but I am not writing for publication. I am writing because I have something to say, to share, to live. And that is true whether it gets picked up on Friday (December 11, 2009 for future readers) or not. Writing down what I have learned is important to the exploration and my understanding of my art for myself, and then for others. It’s what I do.

When your art makes meaning, you do your art. People like it and you thank them and are happy they understand it from their viewpoint. People don’t like it and you nod because they have a different viewpoint. But your art is the tool that helps you understand your life or even the bigger question of why you are here. So other people’s understanding is not a guidepost.

I feel deep admiration for people who are involved in creative work of any sort–and are happy to explain it and talk about it with strength and love. When challenged with traditional questions, “How much can you sell that for?” or “Who cares about that when there is so much misery in the world?” or “How does that help to solve the world’s problems?” or even “How can you do that when your family needs the money from a real job?” the artist knows that there can be no reply that satisfies the questioner. The person asking the question isn’t ready to understand the answer. Or they may be very close to understanding. Or they wish they could make meaning but are afraid. But the question doesn’t demean the artist’s value in discovering their art. They don’t have a choice. It IS their life.

The work of art is to face fear, to live with it, to find what is valuable and to value it. A big order, indeed. But the answer holds the meaning to life.

–Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who trains businesses how to communicate effectively with their clients and helps people who don’t draw or write to keep art journals.